On the evening of Thursday, Sept. 3, the world-renowned, multi-media visual artist Beverly Semmes gave an Artist Talk at UNC-Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum. The presentation concluded her residency and exhibition, “The Feminist Responsibility Project” at the university.
Semmes, who was born in Washington, D.C. and currently resides in New York City, is fueled by both political passion and by a warm and versatile sense of humor. Over the years her repertoire has consisted of photography, painting, video and sculpture using metals, clay, glass and fabric. She completed her MFA at Yale University in the late 1980s and moved to New York, where she assumed a role within an artistic, feminist movement that played on minimalist art of the 1960s.
The “Feminist Responsibility Project,” or the “FRP” as Femmes refers to it, features creations as diverse in content as the rest of her career. On one wall of her exhibition at the Weatherspoon, a small video screen showed her own feet, kicking a pink-painted potato across a frozen lake.
Another held an assortment of colorful, mismatched dresses, patch-worked together and suspended as though offering a fitting to unsuspecting strangers. Yet another presented what might be considered the catalyst of the “FRP”: an assortment of pornographic magazine images which Semmes had modified with abstract shapes and designs covering the models’ exposed body parts.
Prior to working from a feminist standpoint, Femmes took part in a number of collaborations with other artists and institutions, both at home and abroad. Sculpture has always been one of her primary interests; she is inspired by an artist’s ability to take up large amounts of physical space. There is a striking photo of herself at work, which she presented at her Talk: she stands holding a thin paintbrush, dwarfed by the mass of an enormous, long-necked pot, which she built from top to bottom, coil by coil.
Semmes has shown exhibitions in Denmark, Holland, Italy, Greece, Ireland, France and the United Kingdom. Her fascination with taking up space is evident in many of her fabric-based pieces, which feature full-room installations that boast gargantuan rivers of cloth often flowing from the ceiling to the floor in the form of dresses or abstract shapes. The concept, she explained at her talk, is to her deeply feminist.
“My mother called [the pieces] passive-aggressive,” she said jokingly. She is at heart a well-seasoned craftsman, having enjoyed sewing since a very young age under the guidance of her grandmother, who made all her own clothes.
Her self-described culmination in fabric work was realized in 2007 in Arnheim, Holland as a large-scale installation entitled “Petunia.” The piece was a simple yet stunning ocean of pink ripstop nylon, arranged in a massive, nebulous shape on the floor of a retired cathedral, framed by towering white pillars and illuminated by massive, black-ornamented windowpanes.
During its display, she had a museum guard seated at its arc and dressed in the same fuchsia fabric. Bystanders, she explained, were surprised to see the guard stand and walk around after long moments of complete, serene motionlessness.
The inspiration for the pornography-based component of the “FRP” began with a favor Semmes did for a friend. While helping her move, the two came across the friend’s divorced husband’s stack of old “Penthouse” magazines. The friend, an inhabitant of a small, close-knit community, was unsure what to do with them, made uncomfortable by their content but hesitant to dispose of them for fear of other people’s judgment. Semmes took them off her hands.
Initially, her goal was to cover up the obscene elements of the magazine’s images. Breasts and vulvas were laid beneath swatches of scribbled-on shades. At times eyes and legs were precariously exposed but the majority of these images became mere enigmas, hinting at a nonspecific human shape juxtaposed against backdrops of bedrooms and old-fashioned cars. Semmes says she viewed this first experience as a performance of sorts, as her impulsive “feminist responsibility.” Eventually she bought newer magazines of her own and continued the work.
The responsibility she feels towards action against the pornography industry – which some might interpret as negative, unnecessary censorship – stems from the barrage of sexual images she says weigh on her and many other women throughout their daily lives.
Her longtime residency in New York City, she explained, made her absorption of those images in advertising especially pertinent; oftentimes, billboards selling clothes and perfume span 10 or more stories of the city’s skyscrapers. Frustrated, she would ask herself: “Do I have to look at that?”
Looking forward in the feminist mindset, Semmes says she is optimistic of the movement’s progress and energized by new, younger artists’ points of view and artistic production. She acknowledges that in light of advances in freedom of speech, certain things should be analyzed and considered whether or not they pose threat to feminism. One such example is the association of topless, painted women who appeared in Times Square just after the governor’s announcement of his aim to clean up the city.
Much like her potato-kicking video, Semmes views the feminist movement as an eternal struggle. The vegetable’s pink mask leaves a bright trail on the ice as it moves along.
It reminds the viewer, as does Semmes’s fierce artistic sensibility, that in order to make history one must act with purpose and unapologetic, colorful enthusiasm.
Categories: Artist Weekly, Arts & Entertainment
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